PARIS — When Lyon won seven straight French league titles, it was hard to imagine its success ever ending. Now, even qualifying for the Champions League is difficult.
Lyon is in sixth place in the French league, 22 points behind leader Paris Saint-Germain, now France's powerhouse club following massive investment from Qatar. Even more humiliating for the fans, Lyon trails its bitterest rival, Saint-Etienne, by six points.
What a change from the 2000s, which were almost all Lyon's. At its peak, Lyon won the league by 12 points in 2005, by 15 in 2006, by 17 the following year, and then made it seven championships in a row in 2008 before Bordeaux broke the run in '09. Although Lyon reached the Champions League semifinals in 2010, the team was starting in decline.
Several players from Lyon's dominant era — Karim Benzema, Florent Malouda, Eric Abidal and Michael Essien — went on to have excellent careers in Spain and England.
This season and last, Lyon has had to settle for Europa League football, with the far more lucrative and prestigious Champions League slipping beyond its reach. Key players will likely leave or have to be sold if Lyon doesn't qualify for the Champions League again this season. Even during the last offseason, president Jean-Michel Aulas unsuccessfully tried to sell forwards Bafetimbi Gomis and Jimmy Briand to balance the books.
The club website recently trumpeted three new contracts. Unsurprisingly they went unnoticed, because the three-year deals were given to youth academy directors who nurtured Ferri, Tolisso and Zeffane.
Still, it was significant because it highlights how Lyon is relying on its youth system now that it has no spending power.
Debts incurred building a 58,000-seat stadium costing 250 million euros ($345 million) — set to open in the 2015-16 season — and some over-priced signings saw to that.
Aulas gave coach Claude Puel nearly 80 million euros ($110 million) to spend on players from 2008-10. Gourcuff was the most expensive, followed by Brazilian winger Michel Bastos, left back Aly Cissokho and midfielder Ederson. Only Gourcuff — who earns 400,000 euros ($545,000) per month — is still there.
Aulas clashed with Puel and the dressing room became volatile.
Puel had a difficult time with senior players. He tried to eradicate the culture of complacency, but the old guard resisted. Puel left in 2011.
His replacement, Remi Garde, has done remarkably well to stay relatively competitive despite having 15 homegrown players in his squad. When Lyon went to play Chornomorets Odessa in the Europa League last month, Garde included 11 players from the youth ranks — several who had never played a match at senior level. Risky, but Lyon won 1-0 on aggregate to reach the last 16.
Lyon's success at producing players is on a par with Europe's best. Only Barcelona has more home-grown players currently playing across Europe's top five leagues: England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. A total of 31 players formed at Lyon play in those leagues, level with Real Madrid but trailing Barcelona's 44.
Not every Lyon graduate has Benzema's natural talent, but most players formed at the club are known for two things: technique and versatility, making them good-value signings. Top scorer Alexandre Lacazette, for example, can play across the forward line.
The problem now for Garde is whether he will have to sell some of them. If so, he may no longer have the appetite to continue rebuilding after three frustrating seasons, and Aulas will lose one of France's most promising coaches.